Fairy tales and youngest sons

Howard Pyle

From "The Boy Who Went Forth," an essay by novelist Christopher Barzak (in Brothers & Beasts):

Howard Pyle"I grew up reading in a home where no one read, and in that home where my older brothers (had they read) wouldn't have been caught dead with a Charles Perrault book, I grew up reading fairy tales. I was an anomoly, I think, born in a small rural town in Ohio, in a ranch house my father built on my grandmother's farm. Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, recalling the friends of my youth, I remember being aware at a young age that, among the boys I was friends with, none of them read very much. And they especially didn't read fairy tales. Watching the Disney versions was okay when we were small, but even those became off-limits the nearer we drew to our teenage years.

"And yet I counted fairy tales among my varied reading pleasures. I enjoyed comic books (Marvel rather than DC), mysteries (Poe), adventure stories for boys (Craig's My Side of the Mountain), science fiction and fantasy (Le Guin's Earthsea cycle), horror (again Poe), folktales (Irving), and fairy tales (Perrault rather than the Grimms, though I love the Grimms as well as Andersen). I didn't speak of my reading habits with my friends or family. It was private. When I read, I felt as if I could leave the world around me where -- perhaps I knew even then, in some corner of my mind -- I didn't quite fit. Why would I expose the very activity that allowed me to engage in a kind of freedom, that allowed me access to a world in which the limitations of this one disappeared and my imagination could roam past the boundaries of the life I'd been born into? I did not hide my reading, as that would only have aroused suspicion, but I did not speak about it either. I must also make clear, though, that I didn't know I was protecting something. I didn't realize that until I was older.

Bearskin by Howard Pyle

"Although I loved reading fairy tale, there was a certain kind of fairy tale I hated to discover. Tales in which two or three sons and a father act as the central characters, wherein one or two of the boys are either talented, smart, handsome, or all of these things, and the youngest or third son is a weak, strange, malformed, or stupid creature. I took an immediate dislike to these stories, but at the time I wasn't sure why. When I came across fairy tales that used this pattern of characters, though, I would pass these stories over for tales in which someone's dreams come true.

"What I did not understand then was that I had found a type of fairy tale that reflected some aspect of myself, my family, my experience in the 'real world,' and that what it reflected I did not want to see. I sought out the fairy tales that did not reflect my experience, because I didn't want to find myself in stories that were not reaffirming about my placement in the world. What the strange brothers of fairy tales showed me was that, in my family, I was this sort of child. The weakling, the strange thinker, the one set apart from social normality."

Howard Pyle

Chris gives one example of this kind of character: the second son in the Grimms' fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Sets Forth to Learn What Fear Is, a boy portrayed as so useless that he cannot work in his destined trade and earn a living like his elder brother, and so foolish that he hasn't got the sense to be frightened in frightening situations.

The Swan Maiden by Howard PyleThe boy ventures off to learn about fear, moving through an odd series of adventures. He "spends the night among the hanging corpses of the dead husbands of a rope-maker's daughter without realizing he is keeping company with dead men, and he destroys demonic cats in a castle because he knows they are tricking him when they ask if he wants to play cards (slyly he says yes, and before they can put forth their claws he destroys them). He conquers an entire castle full of ghosts and demons and the living dead. Yet somehow this boy is considered stupid.

"The real trick of this tale is in what it reveals about the teller of the story, who I take to be a great sort of Everyman or Everwoman figure, a member of small-town agrarian society who understands the rules of that society and what is considered good and what is considered bad. We are told the second son is stupid because he has no way of earning his own bread, and because he apparently does not fear many of the things that everyone else in the society clearly sees reason to fear. He is unafraid of corpses, ghosts, and demons. He does not run when anyone with any sense would run. Of course the town and town teller, Mr. or Mrs. Everyman or Everywoman, finds the boy to be a stupid, queer sort of fellow.

"Difference, then, constitutes stupidity in the land of fairy tales."

Differences like reading. Or going to college. Or growing up to write books instead of working with one's hands.

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

Later in this fine essay (which I recommend reading in full), Christopher writes:

The Swan Maiden by Howard Pyle"It was not until I re-read as an adult the Grimms' fairy tales, as well as Hans Christian Andersen's and Charles Perraults' stories, that I came to understand why the stories of the dullard sons and brothers pierced me so keenly as a child, to the point that I would slap a book closed or flip furiously to find a different sort of tale. As an adult I was able to see that the stupid sons were stupid only in the eyes of constructed social norms, that they were not inherently useless or strange. They were, in many cases, the real heroes of their lives and the lives of their families. From Perrault's Tom Thumb, a tiny weakling among his healthy strong brothers, I learned that the smallest, weakest child could also be the one to outwit an ogre and save his brothers from certain death and his family from poverty. His smallness, his weakness, provided him with advantages and a keen intelligence that his brothers did not have.

"But it is to the Brothers Grimm boy who went forth to learn what fear was that I still return. As an adult male reader of fairy tales, I can now take some comfort and nourishment from his absurd journey, his going forth fearlessly on a path that others would turn away from. In him I've found a sort of kindred spirit."

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

The art today is by the great American illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911). Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle drew and painted from a young age, spent three years working in the studio of F. A. Van der Weilen in Philadephia, then moved to New York to become an illustrator with the help of Edward Austin Abby and Frederick S. Church. By the time he returned to Wilmington in his late twenties, Pyle's career was well established and he was writing books as well as illustrating them, while also producing sumptuous work for magazines. Generations have now grown up on Pyle's books for children, including The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The Story of King Arthur's Knights, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, and The Wonder Clock. (Most of the drawings in this post are from the latter.)

In 1990, Pyle established The Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art -- first in Wilmington, and then in eastern Pennsylvania near the Brandywine River. The school and the art movement it engendered -- both now known as The Brandywine School -- produced an extraordinary number of superb illustrators including  N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Jessica Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

From The Wonder Clock by Howard PyleThe passage above is from Christopher Barzak's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The Neil Gaiman poem in picture captions first appeared in Black Heart, Ivory Bones, edited by me & Ellen Datlow (Avon Books, 2000), and was reprinted in Brothers & Beasts. All rights reserved by the authors.


Brothers & Beasts: the boys who love fairy tales too

Tilly in the Trees

Many of you will be familiar with Kate Bernheimer's fine book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, originally published in 1998, containing memorable essays by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, bell hooks, Joyce Carol Oates, Fay Weldon, Joy Williams, and many others. (Midori Snyder and I contributed essays to the second, expanded edition in 2002: "The Monkey Girl" and "Transformations.")

The Golden Bird by Maurice SendakLess well known than Mirror, Mirror, but equally good, is Kate's follow-up volume: Brother's & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, 2007. The book has a fine roster of writers, including Gregory Maquire, Neil Gaiman, Robert Coover, Timothy Schaffaert, Christopher Barzak, Jeff VanderMeer, and Alexander Chee, plus contributions from scholars Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes, and a fascinating introduction by Kate discussing the way the project came together.

She'd originally intended to publish both men and women in Mirror, Mirror, she writes, but "several people who greatly supported that book did not support the inclusion of men. They claimed, quite adamantly, 'No one will be interested in what men have to say about fairy tales.' Worse still, they continued, 'Men wouldn't have much of interest to say about fairy tales.'

Hans My Hedgehog & The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was by Maurice Sendak

"But evidence of men's interest in fairy tales is vast and spans many centuries," Kate continues. "At the time I was very young and did not argue. Besides, I thought that a book gathering essays by women would be interesting too. Why not? But I always considered that book incomplete -- or, more precisely, because I am an emotional editor, I consider it unfair. Of all the literary traditions, the fairy-tale tradition is generous and spiteful  towards boys and girls, men and women -- it does not prefer one over the other. I did not like to suggest that women more than men had a stake in these powerful stories.

"Also, I felt that the assertion that men would have nothing to say about fairy tales was reflective of a two-fold prejudice: against men and against fairy tales. There was an implicit disdain for boys drawn to stories of wonder. There was also an implied disdain for fairy tales, so strongly associated with girls and the nursery.

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

"Though several eloquent gender studies of fairy tales exist, one hardly encounters a popular reference to men and fairy tales -- Robert Bly's Iron John nothwithstanding. It is as if men are not allowed to have an emotional or artistic relationship to fairy tales. On the whole -- in the classroom, at conderences, or at lectures -- I find that men are not accustomed to being asked if they like fairy tales, let alone whether fairy tales have influences their emotional, intellectual, and artistic lives. "

The premise of Brothers & Beasts, Kate says, "was to reverse that poor spell."

The Three Feathers by Maurice Sendak

"While I appreciate the celebration, both in scholarship and in popular culture, of the strong female characters in fairy tales," Kate adds, "I think that, first and foremost, our devotion to fairy tales is with 'the whole of the mind' and not with our gender. Phrased differently, perhaps less controversially, it is clear that in both Mirror, Mirror and Brothers & Beasts artistic fervor comes first -- a fervor begun in childhood with a fervor for reading....

"For me, there was nothing like reading fairy tales as a child. As Maria Tatar points out in her lovely forward, 'When you read a book as a child, it sends chills up your spine and produces somatic effects that rarely accompany the reading experience of adults.' Jack Zipes, in his afterword, writes, 'The fairy tale has not been partial to one sex or the other.' Reading fairy tales -- or writing about them -- is, I can assure you, one of the few ways that adults can re-create that delicious, somatic childhood chill.

Bearskin & The Goblins by Maurice Sendak

"Yet men, so discouraged from speaking personally about fairy tales and their connection to them, may lose that opportunity -- which is a loss for us all. That is why I so badly wanted to do this book. I was surprised by the urgency the writers felt too. And I cherish the tenderness with which these writers talk about thimbles and flowers, myth makers and cowards, bears both little and big. It is the tenderness that strikes me, the tenderness and urgency here."

Brothers & Beasts is available from Wayne State University Press. I highly recommend it if it's not on your fairy tale shelves already.

Hansel & Gretel by Maurice Sendak

The art today is by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), from his two-volume fairy tale masterpiece The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm. Sendak, the child of Polish-American parents, came from a family much decimated by the Holocaust. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he vowed to become an artist after watching Disney's Fantasia at the age of twelve. He began illustrating books in the late 1940s, then moved on to writing them as well, creating such classics as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There, and winning virtually every major award he could win.

"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it," Sendak recalled in one interview. "I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters -- sometimes very hastily -- but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."

The 12 Huntsman & Brother and Sister by Maurice Sendak

Tilly in the trees

Mirror, Mirror and Brothers & BeastsWords: The passage above is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Maurice Sendak's drawings are from The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal & Randall Jarrell (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, revised edition 2003); titles can be found in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the Sendak estate. Photographs: Tilly in the trees.


True stories

Studio Muse 1

From The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and Dragon hatchling by Alan Leedenied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.

"For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it's true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that's precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

Dragon by Alan Lee

On my desk

"So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy -- they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that's more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: 'Unicorns aren't real.' And that fact is one that never got anyone anywhere (except in the story 'The Unicorn in the Garden,' by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin.) It is by such statements as, 'Once upon a time there was a dragon,' or 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth." 

Unicorn by Alan Lee & John Howe

Studio Muse 2Words: The passage above is from "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, which first appeared in PNLA Quarterly 38 (1974), and can also be found in her essay collection The Language of the Night (GP Putnams, 1979). Drawings: The two dragon drawings are by Alan Lee, and the unicorn drawing by Alan Lee & John Howe. Photographs: A quiet Friday morning the studio. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.


The stories we need

The Blackberry Bush

Sleepy Time Tale

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."    - Jane Yolen

As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many articles and talks over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.

I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the '60s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.

Little Golden Book editions

I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.

Sleepy Time Tale

My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.

What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, an unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the source of her misery and her shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.

Little 'Fraid of the Dark (from the Book Trails series)

We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.

Peter Pan illustration

In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died (again, much too young) the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.

Book Trails (Lawrence & Shepard, Inc. 1928)

Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.

The Little White Bed That Ran Away

Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.

The Story of the Three Little Doggies

The Chicks  That Stayed Up Late (from the Book Trails series)

One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.

"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"

The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"

"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."

It's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. I am in my 50th decade now, but that unwanted child is still at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone.

The Fat Little Fairy

It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.

From the Book Trails series"I  don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."

Little Milk, Little Cereal, and Grey Kitten Moorka

Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was  The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the early '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian MunnLittle Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.

Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.

The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane

None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.

Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.

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A Story Book (from Book Trails)

Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.


The right books at the right time

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Here's another passage from The Pleasure of Reading on the importance "place" in a child's imagination -- in this case, not the place where the child actually lives, but the worlds conjured by a writer's words:

The Famous Five Have Plenty of Fun"Oh, the excitement of the latest Famous Five adventure," playwright Ronald Harwood reminisces, "with Biggles, Just William, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Long John Silver following close behind. I have not, except for Treasure Island, re-read them since childhood or adolescence and I've made it a condition not to re-read them now in case I am embarrassed by memory. I want to prevent the pompous adult, sensitive to what others may think, from inhibiting the impressionable child. I was, by the way, a late developer and only began reading intelligently when I was twenty.

"I should explain I was born and educated in Cape Town but my mother, born in London, led me to believe from an early age that England was the Promised Land and London Jerusalem so I was a good deal drawn to books which fed my hunger for Englishness, defined by me then, and now, as an ideal of gentleness, culture, countryside and justice.

"Enid Blyton, more than any other writer I remember, fulfilled much of that definition, those longings for England, but only in her Famous Five stories. (I could not abide Noddy or any of the others.) The Famous Five, as I remember, lived somewhere in the south of England -- Kent, I think -- and were amateur detectives who, in their summer holidays, stumbled on crimes and solved them just as it was time to go back to school. Gentle justice triumphed.

Eileen Soper

"But it was her ability to share her love of the English landscape which was, to me, her most endearing quality," Harwood continues. "Enid Blyton described the rural scene so vividly that I carry to this day what I believe to be her images of tree-tunnels and green hillsides and well-kept careless gardens. I am told now it was a sugary, middle-class idyll she created (a criticism as meaningless to me now as it would have been then), romantic, idealized, nostalgic.

"The fascinating aspect of her power, however, is that when, many years later, I went to live in a Hampshire village and walked the footpaths and climbed the hangers, my memory was jolted by her descriptions of the England in which the capers of the Famous Five took place and seemed to me accurate. I cannot say she influenced my own writing but as a reader I owe her an enormous debt; and I remember in the 1970s, when censorship was virulent in England, how shocked I was to read of librarians removing Enid Blyton from their shelves for being too middle-class or too twee or too something. They could not have known that to one immigrant, at least, she described a magical world."

Eileen Soper

Famous Five cover art by Eileen Soper

Doris Lessing lived in Iran until she was five, then spent the rest of her childhood on a farm in South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

"I began reading at seven, off a cigarette pack," she recalls, before progressing to the books on her English-born parents' shelves. "The books I responded to then are not those I would Anne of Green Gableschose as best now. You have to read a book at the right time for you, and I'm sure this cannot be insisted on too often, for it is the key to the enjoyment of literature.

"I read children's books, some unknown to today's children. The [North] Americans: L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did series, The Girl of Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter and its sequels. Louisa Alcott. Hawthorne. Henty. The English classics were Lewis Carroll, who I like better now than I did then, and Milne's Winnie the Pooh, which I adored then and feel uneasy about now. The hero is a stupid greedy little bear, and the clever animals are ridiculous: good old England, I sometimes think, at it again. But there was Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows cover atyThe Wind in the Willows,
and a wonderful children's newspaper, and a magazine called The Merry-Go-Round that printed Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, Lawrence Binyon, and other fine writers. Walter de la Mare's The Three Royal Monkeys entranced me then, and still kept some of its magic about it when I recently re-read it.

"I was lucky that my parents read to my brother and me. I believe that nothing has the impact of a story read or told. I remember the atmosphere of those evenings, and all the stories, some of them long-running domestic epics made up by my mother, about the adventures of mice, or our cats and dogs, or the little monkeys that lived around us in the bush and sometimes leaped about in the rafters under the thatch, or the interaction between our domestic animals and the wild ones all around us....Parents who read to their children or who make up stories are giving them the finest gift in the world. Do we too often forget that tale-telling is thousands of years old, whereas we have been reading for a trifling number of centuries?"

Early editions of three children's classics

Vintage Children's Books, a still life painting by Holly FarrellPictures: The pictures at the top and bottom of this post are by Holly Farrell, a Canadian artist whose paintings of old books and other objects are just wonderful. The classic Famous Five illustrations are by Eileen Soper (1905-1990). The first edition of Anne of Green Gables was illustrated by M. A. & W. A. J. Claus (1914). The edition of Wind in the Willows illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard came out in 1931, though the story itself, unillustrated, first appeared in 1908. The cover design for The Girl of the Limberlost is by Wladyslaw T. Benda, the cover illustration for What Katy Did is uncredited, and the cover illustration for Little Women is by C.M. Burd. The novels were originally published in 1909, 1872, and 1868/69 respectively. Words: The passages by Ronald Harwood and Doris Lessing above are from Reading for Pleasure, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors, artists, or their estates.


Reading and place

The Tooth Fairy by Su Blackwell

"Reading for me is inextricably tied to place," writes Scottish author Emma Tennant about the books she favored in childhood. It's my favorite of the charming essays to be found in Antonia Fraser's The Pleasures of Reading, for Tennant grew up in a house that seems to have emerged from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, built by her great-grandfather:

"The Victorian Gothic house -- a 'monstrosity' to some, a 'folly' to others -- to all a decidedly odd place for a person to spend their formative years, cast its long shadow over the books I read. For years no book I read came from anywhere but the bowels and lungs -- and in some cases the twisted attics -- of the Big House that crouched at the end of a valley still then clad with the last shreds of the Ettick Forest. I read up and down the house, and I knew fairly early on that I would never begin to get through it all -- even with the help of the terrifying Demonologie, property of James IV of Scotland, with its turning paper wheels to aid with the casting of spells.

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"To begin with that ragged line of Ettrick silver birches outside my window. This was the Fethan wood, where James Hogg set fairy tales and metamorphoses: it was dangerous to walk there, to go up to the ring of bright grass and look down at the house through silver-grey trees. People came out transformed into animals -- or didn't come out at all, to be discovered years later as three-legged stools. I read the Hogg stories -- or they were read to me -- and years before I was able to go on to his great masterpiece, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the account of a man driven insane by Calvinism, by the dictates of the devil who sends him out to kill as one of the Elect -- I could feel the power of Hogg's imagination in the hills and woods and streams that enclosed the house.

Detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"The house could be said to be like an archaeological dig, with the basement providing material contemporaneous with the discoveries of archeologists Arthur Evans or Heinrich Schliemann, and just as startling for a child to discover as it must have been for the archaeologists to unearth the foundations of Knossos or Clytemnestra's tomb. Here were Henty and Ballantyne -- and, most important of all, H. Rider Haggard's She -- all in low rooms hard to find in a labyrinth of tiled passages, cold with a strong smell of rot. Here the strong and brave of the Empire fought their battles and had their impossible adventures; and here I lingered, in disused dairies and stillrooms, reading in a world which was a dusty monument to that vanished and glorious past.

The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Another detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

"From the crepuscular vaults of the house there were two ways up. The back stairs led to the schoolrooms, where tubercular daughters had coughed over books of such spectacular dullness that I remember none of them -- except for the fact that some more recent incumbents had left a stash of historical romances by Margaret Irwin and Violet Needham. Here, in the abandoned schoolroom, I was drawn into a past (there were a couple of Georgette Heyers too) of phaetons and darkly scowling artistocrats and games of faro and the like, and for a while I stopped there, until the discovery of Alexander Dumas' The Back Tulip drew me down the stairs again and out into the garden. For the magnetic quality of that extraordinary book led me to search the grassy paths and flower borders for the elusive tulip -- and once I thought I saw it between two yew trees, at the entrance to the garden: a rich, gleaming black flower that would guide me somehow down the paths my own imagination was just beginning to try....

Gormenghast by Su Blackwell

"The attic had books in trunks that had split open with age -- books no-one wanted when they went off to war, or went off to get married, or had no room for anyway. Bees had once swarmed in the attic, and it's to the smell of wax that I remember finding the early Penguins: the Aldous Huxleys, a book called A Month of Sundays, which I have never since been able to trace -- and the odd Agatha Christie, which kept me up there until dark, amongst children's wicker saddles, pictures of dead aunts that no-one would ever want to look at, and a floor covering of dead bees."

The Snow Queen by Su Blackwell

The Luminaries by Su Blackwell

As an American child growing up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses, I longed for a Gothic pile like Tennant's, with rooms to explore and books to discover and pathways leading to fairy tale woods. It wasn't until I was grown that I finally lived in house full of history and ghosts: a Matilda by Su Blackwelllittle stone cottage, 400 years old, that I owned for two decades before I was married. That's a story for another day, however, as that was a place that shaped my adult self, not the child I was and thus the writer I became.

What house did you love in childhood? Or long for? Or perhaps still inhabit today? We've been talking about place and home this last week, and the houses in which our earliest years unfolded surely shaped our creative psyches as much as the land or cityscape around them. For me, tossed back and forth between the houses of various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care, the transient aspect of those years led to a deep obsession with the theme of "finding home, place, and family" that runs (whether I consciously mean it to or not) through all of my work. I'd be a different writer if my childhood had been stable and rooted. Not better or worse, just different.

Despite having no single place that was my home, I also associate the books I loved in childhood with places where I first read them, as Emma Tennant does in the delightful passage above. Re-reading such books can whisk us right back, for good or ill....

A potent form of time-traveling indeed.

Detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

The art today is, of course, by the great British papercut artist Su Blackwell, most of it created in the last year.

”I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore," she says. "I began making a series of book-sculpture, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes. For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Visit the Blackwell's website to see her utterly amazing book sculptures and installations, and go here to see a video in which the artist discusses her creative process. She also has three lovely books out: The Fairytale Princess (with Wendy Jones), Sleeping Beauty Theatre (with Corina Fletcher), and Su Blackwell Book Sculptures.

The Shell Seekers by Su Blackwell

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellPictures: You'll find the titles of Su Blackwell's sculptures in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The passage by Emma Tennant above is from The Pleasures of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the author.


On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this catagory, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In Friday's post, and yesterday's, we've been talking about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things impact creative work. Today I'd like to come at the subject from a slightly different direction, with the idea that loss of home can be as powerful a creative spur as the finding of the heart's home, or the love of a long-established one.

Loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The beautiful art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators.


The books that shape us: 4

Flowering Plants of Great Britain by Kerry Miller

From an essay by Margaret Atwood in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

"I learned to read before I started school. My mother claims I taught myself because she refused to read comics to me. Probably my older brother helped: he was writing comic books himself, and may have needed an audience.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"In any case, the first books I can remember are a scribbled-over copy of Mother Goose and several Beatrix Potters, from her Dark Period (the ones with knives, cannabilistic foxes, and stolen babies in them). Then came the complete, unexpurgated Grimms' Fairy Tales, which my parents ordered by mail, unaware that it would contain so many red-hot shoes, barrels full of nails, and mangled bodies. This was in the 1940s, just after the war. It was becoming the fashion, then, to rewrite fairy tales, removing anything too bloodthirsty and prettying up the endings, and my parents were worried that all the skeletons and gouged-out eyes in Grimms' would warp my mind. Perhaps they did, although Bruno Bettleheim has since claimed that this sort of thing was good for me. In any case I devoured these stories, and a number of them have been with me ever since.

"Shortly after this I began to read everything I could get my hands on. At that time my family was spending a lot of time in the northern Canadian bush, where there were no movie theaters, and Book sculpture by Kerry Millerwhere even radio was unreliable: reading was it. The school readers, the notorious milk-and-water Dick and Jane series, did not have much to offer me after Grimms'. See Jane Run, indeed. Instead I read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes. I tried 'girls' books' -- The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, The Curleytops series by Howard Garis, Cherry Ames, Junior Nurse -- but they weren't much competition for Batman or the red-hot iron shoes. (Anne of Green Gables was an exception; that one I loved.) I made my way through the standard children's classics, some of which I'd already heard, read aloud by my mother -- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the Alice books, Treasure Island. Gulliver's Travels is not really a children's book, but was considered one because of the giants, so I read that too. 

"I read Canadian animal stories -- those by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, for instance -- in which the animals always ended up dead. Such books appeared regularly at Christmas -- adults seemed to think that any book about animals was a children's book -- and I would snivel my way through the trapped, shot and gnawed corpses of the various rabbits, grouse, foxes and wolves that littered their pages, overdosing on chocolates. I read Orwell's Animal Farm, thinking that it too was a story about animals, and was seriously upset by the death of the horse."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller


Later in the essay, Atwood discusses her reading as an adolescent, ranging from pulp science fiction to Austen and the Brontes. And then, during the years her family lived in Toronto, she discovered the cellar.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"My parents had two vices which I have inherited -- they bought a lot of books, and they found it difficult to throw any of them out. The cellar was lined with bookshelves, and I used to go down there and browse among the books, while eating snacks filched from the kitchen -- crackers thickly spread with peanut butter and honey, dates prized off the block of them used for baking, handfuls of raisins, and -- one of my favorites -- lime jelly powder. The whole experience felt like a delicious escape, and my eclectic eating habits complemented what I was reading, which ranged from scientific textbooks on ants and spiders -- my father was an entymologist -- to H.G. Wells' history of almost everything, to the romances of Walter Scott, to old copies of National Geographic, to the theatrical murders of Ngaio Marsh. This is where I came across Churchill's history of the second world war, Orwell's 1984, and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon -- books which did, much later, actually have an influence on something I wrote myself, as The Handmaid's Tale emerged from the same fascination with history and the structure of totalitarian regimes.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"All this took place quite apart from school. At school I was practical, and saw myself as someone who would eventually have a serious job of some kind. The drawback to this was that there were only five careers listed for women in the Guidance textbook: home economist, nurse, teacher, airline stewardess, and secretary. Home economists got paid the most, but I was not good at zippers. This was depressing. I read more.

"In English, we were studying a Shakespeare play a year, a good deal of Thomas Hardy and some George Eliot, and a lot of poetry, most of it by the romantics and the Victorians. Writing -- unlike reading -- appeared to be something that had been done some time ago, and very far away. In those days the Canadian high school had not yet discovered either modern poetry or Canada itself; 'Canadian writer' seemed to be a contradiction in terms; and when I realized at the age of sixteen that writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, nobody was more surprised than I was."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

The art today is by Kerry Miller,  a British "book sculptor" who turns discarded texts into whimsical wonders.

"After many years of working in collage and mixed media," she writes, "I began exploring ways of using old, discarded books, experimenting with deconstructing and rebuilding them to produce unique pieces of artwork. The books are variously sourced and are carefully selected for their illustrations and character, whilst taking into account my perception of how the finished piece will look.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

"For each piece I work on, only the illustrations found within that particular book are used. Colour is added using inks or watercolours where I consider that they will enrich and enhance the final effect, giving a sense of depth and energy. These intricately worked 3D books provide tantalising glimpses into a rich past, becoming miniature worlds that allow the viewer to simply tumble into them.

"My work is a means of distilling the essence of a book, whilst releasing the images and allowing them to reach a new audience. I view it as a collaboration, a partnership with the past, giving new purpose to old volumes that may otherwise never see the light of day or simply end up in recycling. As technology threatens to replace the printed word, there has never been a better time to reimagine the book."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

The passage by Margaret Atwood above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading the essay in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.


The books that shape us: 3

The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allburg

From an essay by poet Roger McGough in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allburg copy"At the age of five I started school and became an infant. At Star of the Sea I learned my letters from wall-charts, so old-fashioned that Ronnie with his Red Rattle and Tired Mother, who sighed 'Hah' as she sat on a large 'h,' looked more unreal than the fairies and elves  who decorated the picture books.

"This method of personifying the alphabet, however, worked too well and overfired my imagination to the extent that I still attribute feelings to individual letters rather than seeing them as mere hieroglyphs. (That's what is good about a word like 'hieroglyphs,' the letters find themselves in different company, it keeps them on their toes. I digress.)

"The first story I remember that touched me deeply was Greyfriars' Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson, and the fact that it was true made my NHS glasses mist over time after time. To know there would be no sequel entitled Bobby to the Rescue, in which it transpired that the old chap had not really died but had fallen off the top of Ben Nevis and lain injured until finally rescued by the plucky The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allburgterrier, was a tragic realization. That truth could be crueller than fiction was one of the first lessons reading taught me, and I didn't want to believe it. What I wanted was Custer Rides Again, Joan of Arc II and Further Adventures of the Princess in the Tower. Fairy tale fiction, of course, was often dark and as scary as any nightmare, and although there were no witches or goblins in the part of Liverpool that I grew up in, I realized that what happened to Hansel and Gretel could happen to any child. The names, places and costumes may have changed but evil was still there.

"But so was goodness of course, courage, and generosity. At the age of seven or eight my heroine was Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper's daughter who helped rescue sailors from a ship wrecked off the Northumbrian coast. The book featured stirring illustrations of a frail beauty rowing through a storm, and I knew then that when I grew up I wanted to be rescued by someone as lovely as she. (As a matter of fact I was, but that's another story.)

Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

"It was at the top end of junior school that I graduated to abridged versions of classics such as Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol which caused my pulse to race and my hackles tremble. Remember the feeling when turning the page was almost too much to bear? As adults grown weary on cliches and re-designed storylines, we too easily forget the initial jolt, the power, almost drug-like, of those first readings, when imagination flared up and seemed capable of consuming us.

The Widow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg"After romping through half-remembered classics (abridged too far, perhaps?), such as Around the World in A-Day-and-a-Half, A Tale of One City and The Lion, the Witch and the Tea-chest, it was the comic that became my essential reading. Not cartoons but adventure weeklies such as Wizard, Hotspur and Rover. Here I mixed happily with the public schoolboys of Red Circle, and admired the pluck of Limp-along Leslie, the diminutive left-winger who, despite a withered leg, developed an unstoppable shot that unerringly curled into the top right-hand corner of the net two minutes before the final whistle.

"Another working-class hero with whom I identified was Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track who trained on fish and chips, wore hobnailed boots, baggy undies and a borrowed vest and showed the world's best milers a clean pair of heels (well, not that clean, actually). And perhaps my all-time favorite -- Wilson, the metaphysical mega-athlete and mystic who lived in a cave on Dartmoor, on a diet of nuts and berries. Clad only in black woolly combinations he would emerge when his country needed him and run like the wind with its tail on fire. Scorning fame and success he was the outsider, an eccentric loner.

Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

"The interesting thing about these comic book characters is that they were all either deformed, deprived or cuckoo, and yet were capable of extraordinary feats of strength and endurance, thanks to intense concentration, the will to win and an abhorrence of sex. Unlike me. (It is with some embarrassment that I admit to borrowing my sister's copy of School Friend each week to marvel at the drawings of girls wearing tutus or hockey shorts. National Geographic magazines, too, have a lot to answer for.)

"Verse speaking played an import part in fashioning my reading. As a child I used to mumble and so when I was eleven my mother sent me to elocution lessons where I learned to mumble louder. Poems which had been grey indescipherable lumps during Eng. Lit. periods suddenly came to life. Carroll's 'The Jabberwocky,'  'The Burial of Sir John Moore at Carunna' and Masefield's 'Cargoes' were favorites to recite individually or as part of a chorus. Eventually I became unselfconscious about hearing my own voice, I learned to listen to the poet's."

McGough grew up to publish over thirty collections of poetry for children and adults, as well as plays and an autobiography. He was awarded an OBE in 1997, and a CBE in 2004.

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

The art today is by the American children's book writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1949, Van Allsburg studied art at the University of Michigan and the Rhode Island School of Design, intending to be a sculptor until his wife pointed out that his drawings would make good illustrations for children's books. He wrote and illustrated his first picture book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in the late 1970s, and has published over two dozen other fine books since, winning two Caldecott medals and the international The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van AllsburgHans Christian Andersen Award. The drawings here come from The Z Was Zapped (1987), Jumanji (1981), The Widow's Broom (1992), The Sweetest Fig (1993), and my favorite, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984).

"The idealized vision of the yet-to-be created book is powerful motivation," Van Allsburg once said in an interview. "I can envision what I think a book will be like, the atmosphere the book will create between the cardboard covers, and I’ve never actually been able to measure up to the ideal that exists in my imagination before I sit down to make it. Many months later, the book is finally created, it’s printed, it’s bound. It has never been the case that I got that first bound book back from the printer and opened it up and said, 'Gosh, I really nailed it.' That’s never happened. Because of that, it makes me think: Maybe next time. Whenever people ask me, 'Gee, you’ve done a number of books now. What’s your favorite?' I will always tell them, 'Well, my favorite’s the one I’m going to do next because that will be better than the ones I’ve done so far.' It is important for an artist to feel that way."

The Widows Broom by Chris Van AllsburgThe passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading Roger McGough's essay in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.


The books that shape us: 2

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Arthur Hughes

From an essay by A.S. Byatt in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

The Pained Heart by Arthur Hughes"The roots of my thinking are a tangled maze of myths, folktales, legends, fairy stories. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Alexander of Macedon, Achilles and Odysseus, Apollo and Pan, Loki and Baldur, Sinbad and Haroun al Rashid, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, Tom Bombadil and Cereberus. I have no idea now where I got all this, except for the Norse myths, which came from a turn of the century book, Asgard and the Gods, bought by my mother as a crib for her Ancient Norse and Icelandic exams at Cambridge. I read the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang and several collections of ballads, and 'How Horatio Kept the Bridge' from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. The tales and myths and legends...made it clear that there was another world, beside the world of having to be a child in a house, an inner world and a vast outer world with large implications -- good and evil, angels and demons, fate and love and terror and beauty -- and the comfort of the inevitable ending, not only the happy ending against odds, but the tragic one too.

Enoch Arden's Despair by Arthur Hughes

A Music Party by Arthur Hughes

The Death of King Arthur by Arthur Hughes"At the same time, and just as early, I remember the importance of poetry, Nursery rhymes, ballads, the 'Jackdaw of Rheims' from Richard Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends and A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Slowly silent now the moon' by Walter de la Mare. I think one of the most important writers to me ever has been Walter de la Mare, though it is a debt hard to recognize or acknowledge. Partly for the singing strange rhythms of his poetry, partly for the strange worlds and half-worlds he gave one glimpses of, the world of a pike suspended in thick gloom under a bridge, the journeyings of the Three Mulla Mulgars, which I read over and over. The most important poems were three coloring books we had, a page of poetry beside a picture, all three complete stories: The Pied Piper, Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott,' his Morte d'Arthur. I knew them all by heart long before I thought to ask who had written them. Their rhymes haunt everything I write, especially the Tennyson. The enclosed weaving lady became my private symbol for my reading and brooding self long before I saw what she meant for him, and for 19th century poetry in general.

The Lady of Shalott  by Arthur Hughes

"Truthfulness forces me to admit that we did not have that great anthology of magical and narrative verse, de la Mare's Come Hither, but we were brought up on its contents by my mother, who gave us poems and more poems, as though it was unquestionable that this was the very best thing she could do for us.

The Rift Within by Arthur Hughes

Sir Galahad Armed by an Angel by Arthur Hughes

"What about fiction, as opposed to fairy tales? What I remember most vividly is learning fear, which I think may be important to all animals -- I used to love the song from The Jungle Book -- 'It is fear, oh little hunter, it is fear.' And I remember Blind Pew tapping, the terrible staircase and the heather-hunting in Kidnapped, I A Passing Cloud by Arthur Hughesremember Jane Eyre locked in the Red Room, and poor David Copperfield at the mercy of Mr. Murdstone, the horrors of Fagin in the condemned cell (I could only have been eight or nine) and worst of all (though I still have nightmares about executions) Pip on the marshes being grabbed by Magwitch in that brilliant and terrible beginning of Great Expectations. I must have been very little. I didn't understand any more than Pip that Magwitch's terrible companion was fictive.

"I remember my first meeting with evil, too, and it has only just recently struck me how strange that was. I worked my way along my grandmother's shelf of school prizes -- was I nine or ten? Or younger? And read Uncle Tom's Cabin before anyone had told me that slaves had really existed outside The Arabian Nights. Tom's sufferings and the evil of the system and the people who killed him, with cruelty or negligence, made me feel ill and appalled. I never talked to anyone about it. We sang about Christ's suffering in church but that seemed comparatively comfortable and institutional and had after all a happy ending, whereas Tom's story did not. And yet one is grateful for the glimpses of the dark: as long as they do not destroy, they strengthen."

An illustration for George Macdonald's Phantastes by Arthur Hughes

An illustration for Phantastes by Arthur Huges

The art today is by Arthur Hughes, a Victorian painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London in 1832, Hughes studied art at Somerset House and the Royal Academy, and had his first picture accepted for a Royal Academy exhibition when he was only 17. Upon meeting Rossetti and other members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hughes pledged himself to the Brotherhood's cause and spent the rest of his life creating paintings and drawings rooted in Pre-Raphaelite ideals. He was also a leading book illustrator in what was known as the "Sixties Group," remembered best today for his classic drawings for the fantasy novels of George Macdonald. The artist was married (to the model for his painting "April Love") and had six children, one of whom became a successful landscape painter.  (The "fairy painter" Edward Robert Hughes was Arthur Hughes' nephew.) The artist died at home in London in 1915, after a long and prolific career.

The White Hind by Arthur Hughes

Fair Rosemund by Arthur HughesThe passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading A.S. Byatt's essay in full. All rights reserved by the author.